The Sexist Art World in 2009 –

The Sexist Art World in 2009 –



In 1989 a group of anonymous feminist art world activists, who called themselves the Guerrilla Girls, created a poster that asked the question “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”. Below this question it was stated that “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female”. Unfortunately, since 1989 things have not improved much at all. This poster was re-created by the Guerilla Girls for the 2005 Venice Biennale with the same image but different text. The 2005 Venice Biennale poster read “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” then below was “Less than 3% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 83% of the nudes are female”. See the difference?. Yes, the number of female artists in the Modern Art sections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art had actually reduced in the 15 years between the original poster, and the re-assessment of the collection conducted by the Guerrilla Girls in the fall of 2004. Not only had the percentage of works by women artists gone down but the percentage of nudes that are of females went down as well. This means that there are now more male nudes than there were which I am not sure whether to be pleased about or not.

It is quite obvious that we have a long way to go. Consider the fact that up until 1986 H.W. Janson’s famous ‘History of Art’ textbook did not include any female artists. When questioned in 1979 about the lack of female artists in his textbook, Janson said that he couldn’t find a female artist who he thought belonged in a one volume book on the history of art. As a comparison I looked through the textbook that I was required to use when I completed by Bachelor of Arts (Art History and Criticism) degree from 2001-2003. My copy of E.H.Gombrich’s ‘The Story of Art’ was printed in 1995 and has a sticker on the front of it that states that over 6,000,000 copies of the book have sold which makes it “The World’s Best Selling Art Book”. Okay, so how does the world’s best selling art book rate when it comes to recognising female artists?. I would love to be able to say that it rates well but not surprisingly it rates extremely poorly. Out of all the images in the book there was only one I could find that was by a women artists – an image of a lithograph titled ‘Need’ by Kathe Kollwitz. I haven’t had a chance to re-read the whole book to see how many female artists are featured in the book but at the present time it seems that Kathe Kollwitz is the only one.

What about the commercial sector?. Brainstormers, A New York Based art collective that aims to highlight the gross gender inequities in the contemporary New York Art, has a website called the Brain Stormers Report which provides information relating to their cause. One section of the website titled “Top 30 Offenders 2008” has screen shots of the websites of the 30 NY commercial galleries that have the lowest percentage of female artists as of May 2008. You can take a look at the rather disappointing stats here:

It would be unfair to suggest that there hasn’t been any progress on the issue of gender inequality in the art world because there has. There are many museums that have increased the number of works by female artists in their collections such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris. In fact, the Pompidou Centre is currently holding a year long exhibition of works by 200 female artists from the 20th and 21st centuries. According to the director of the centre’s modern art collections, no museum has ever done this before – a fact that is disturbing to say the least. Also hopping on the female artist bandwagon is the UK’s Walker Art Gallery which is holding an exhibition titled “The Rise of Women Artists – From 16th century to present day” from the 23 October 2009 to 14 March 2010. According to the press release for the exhibition: “The exhibition traces the historical changes affecting women, looking at their status and careers as they moved to assert themselves as artists in their own right”.

Although there are institutions that do deserve to be recognised for at least making some effort to correct the imbalance, the overall rate of progress has been abysmal to say the least especially when it comes to the cultural sector. I have plenty more to say on this issue to stay tuned.

To be continued…………

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications.

11 Responses

  1. OH YES , I know for a fact that woman are less considered in any job so why not as artist too… I have a day job to be able to paint and because I am a woman my salary is very very much inferior as a male with the same and sometimes less experience and knowledge that me. At 44 years old I am more than upset , today world is without frontiers but woman are still considered less of a person than men. My collection includes Nudes ( a lot of woman and 2 man ) because I see woman’s body as very sensual and it’s help me get much further in the message and emotions I want to deliver. I am fighting as hard as I can to be recognized internationaly. So far I have reach New York, Hong Kong, Montréal, Paris, Miami and recently India. My wish to present my collection around the world and as a woman. WE ARE ALL ARTIST . THERE IS NO SEXE, CULTURE, AGE OR DREAMS THAT MAKES ART DIFFERENT. Art is about emotions and been ourself and I am proud to be a woman as much as an artist.

  2. This is simple. Testosterone is the driving factor in every person’s life . . . everyone has it in different levels, and the results are clear. Those with more tend to be aggressive, competitive, and sexually domineering . . . those with less are frequently softer, gentler, and sexually submissive. The gay community is evidence of this in full spectrum, extremes in all directions. What does this have to do with female nudes in art ? And what do female nudes in art have to do with the male/female ratio of artists represented ? Testosterone. The scientific motivation and energy behind all confrontation and competition. I have my own questions here, Why has the ‘feminist’ movement urged women to become more aggressive and competitive, when those are the very traits that are considered ‘manly’ ? Aren’t they asking women to be more like men ? Is that the definition of feminism ? Men are being used as the model of what every woman should aspire to be ? If one thinks in terms of people who have elevated or lower levels of testosterone, then this makes sense. The male nude that would best correspond to the female nudes in the museum, is a softer, gentler man . . . a type of person that would be seen as ‘beautiful’. That is the motivation behind painting female nudes . . . that they are beautiful. This is not porn. This is an aesthetic. It is not sexist, combatitive, or chauvinist. Most women artists I know would much rather paint a female nude as well, but since most of them are feminist . . . I can only conclude that they’re trying to act and paint like a man. So why should there be more of them in the museum ? Testosterone.

  3. David, I think you are on to something important. It is still more important to be strong, firm, powerfull (the nature of men) rather than careing, helpfull and giving (the female nature) In school all the logic, technical things are more important than pictures and words. So when art is to be accepted it at least have to be done by one with ambitions, so that the artwork can be seen as a moneyplace. Not just all this feelingstuff. (the low paid work is still the caring, nursing work done by women) To make sure that male money (that is still the truth – they have more money than women) is used right they has to be sure it is some logic into it. Hmm make sence, does it not?

  4. I would hate to see the art world be regulated by an Affirmative Action enforcement of statistical minority quotas where they are required to display a certain percentage of women, men, black, white, Asian, etc. Is it so impossible for the art world to base the display of art on merit and impact alone? I tend to live in a naive state where I believe my failures are based on nothing more than my own issues, not the issues of other people. It’s irritating to me that we even have to have this discussion. Nonetheless, it is a necessary one if we are to ever move past this prejudice place in which we all find ourselves living. My philosophy is this; when you find a stump in the way of your path, if the stump cannot be removed, find a way around it.

  5. I think this is a conversation that still needs to be had. No one likes quotas, but if it is easier to overlook the “softer, more quiet female artist” then there needs to be a reason to make people pay attention. If we don’t want aggressive, “testosterone” driven women artists, and testosterone behaviour is the judged of art, what is the answer? Even the lesser valuing of watercolour, or quilting, or hooked rugs, or fabric art, smacks of sexism if seen in the light of “testoterone’.

  6. This topic always brings up so much emotion for people, this business of what women can accomplish or not within the confines of our social structures, norms, and practices and whether it is “fair” or “right” or not. I am a woman, and while I have certainly encountered many, many instances and experiences that one could categorize as “sexist” or “discriminatory”–regardless, I have managed to be, and continue to be, wildly successful in life–both professionally and personally.

    I believe that people, regardless of their sex, will be successful and make a difference when they follow their true callings, and go forth in the face of possible rejection, in spite of apparent inequality, and against the odds. Success will follow not because they faced the odds, or possessed more of this quality or that quality, but quite simply because they kept on going, doing and being. The goals must be bigger and farther reaching than based in gender equality.

    The art world carries with it the compounding belief that it is “difficult” to “make it” as an artist, let alone as woman artist. More women will be regonized when they simply expect to be and continue on until they are. It is by no means fair, or pretty, or easy. We could have the same discussion about minority representation in the same forums. While this does not lessen the truth of what Mr. Foresst states today on his blog, it does speak to a greater issue: Where do we imbue these qualities of belief and worth in our society and in our children? That is where we should begin addressing it.

    Thanks so much for your posting and your blog, Nicholas, it’s always so interesting.

  7. Thanks for the wonderful read. Good that you have done a great deal of home work related to the topic. Keep up the Good Work.
    All the best!

  8. This article brings up some completely valid points. However, the women who work with me at my gallery make more than I do!! Sigh! But they are awesome and deserve every dollar!

  9. Thank you Nicholas for bringing the gender imbalance in the commercial and public artworld to my attention. I’m afraid that the feminists of the 70s have not been replaced, especially here in Australia, and as feminism is not a subject that is as ‘visible’ as it was years ago, people (such as myself) assume that the imbalance has been redressed. Here in Australia we need some Guerilla Girls!

  10. Sadly it is all true that women today are still looked upon as less than men, even though women are just as intellectual and talented s men in every way. I think this is because men still dominate the world, and thus, they want to keep women in a lower place.

  11. when the overall obsession with power dynamics shifts (if ever) then you’ll see a change. when people are less interested with power over others rather than self empowerment. if testosterone and aggression is still what is running things then the question is who says that this is qualitively better than an alternative way of doing things? progressing so little from cave-man tactics does not seem a progression at all in my mind. just because someone is louder than another and therefore is heard more often does not make their approach better.

    arguments of the kind that ‘this is how it always has been and will always be’ is the same kind used when everyone thought the world was flat.

    it’s such a complex, deep rooted issue, my female artist friends and i are trying to get are head around it in multiple ways… with our day to day dealings with the art world, are personal practices, art historically. it doesn’t help when females themselves buy into the paradigm, dissipate their creative energies with in-fighting, i.e. a particularly aggressive female friend of mine says to me, ‘the problem with women is they don’t know how to compete’… i say in response, ‘why can’t it be the other way around, the problem with men (patriarchal society) is that they don’t know how to NOT compete.’

    i don’t think it’s ideal to have everyone become like a man or everyone to be like a woman, but a BALANCE must be struck.

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